by Vladimir Nabokov

Paperback, 1989




Vintage (1989), Edition: 1st, 208 pages


Pnin is a professor of Russian at an American college who takes the wrong train to deliver a lecture in a language he cannot master. Pnin is a tireless lover who writes to his treacherous Liza: "A genius needs to keep so much in store, and thus cannot offer you the whole of himself as I do." Pnin is the focal point of subtle academic conspiracies he cannot begin to comprehend, yet he stages a faculty party to end all faculty parties forever.

User reviews

LibraryThing member John
I enjoyed Pnin, a story about a displaced Russian who travels to the USA, via France, after fleeing the Bolsheviks, and who ends up as a not-very-appreciated professor in a small-town and largely forgotten university. His specialty, in addition to teaching Russian language to very few students, is
Show More
Russian cultural history which has made him, "a happy, footnote-drugged maniac who disturbs the book mites in a dull volume, a foot thick, to find in it a reference to an even duller one." The novel is a comedy with touches of social satire, but with a deeper appreciation of a man who has been beset by vicissitudes of life, but who is essentially a decent human being who asks for little. The story begins with Pnin taking the wrong train to go to a lecture that he has been invited to give and after following him through various peregrinations, he reaches his destination to find that he has the wrong lecture notes with him. This rather sets the tone for Pnin's life: an amiable, decent person, who has his dislikes but seeks not to harm anyone, happiest in his own solitude (without "sonic" disturbances; he is constantly changing rented rooms searching for peace), and somewhat at a loss to function in the real world, especially in the new world of the USA. The description of him learning how to drive and his first such efforts are hilarious. Even his personal appearance is a disconnected, "...he began rather impressively with that great brown dome of his, tortoise-shell glasses (masking an infantile absence of eyebrows), apish upper lip, thick neck, and strong-man torso in a tightish tweed coat, but ended, somewhat disappointingly, in a pair of spindly legs (now flanneled and crossed) and frail-looking, almost feminine feet."

The novel is also a discourse on history and memory, memories welcomed and forced back. Pnin often remembers the lives and actions of his parents, but the most poignant part of the book, for me, is Pnin's memory of an early love:

"Pnin had taught himself, during the last ten years, never to remember Mira Belochkin...because , if one were quite sincere with oneself, no conscience, and hence no consciousness, could be expected to subsist in a world where such things as Mira's death were possible. One had to forget—because one could not live with the thought that this graceful, fragile, tender young woman with those eyes, that smile, those gardens and snows in the background, had been brought in a cattle car to an extermination camp and killed by an injection of phenol into the heart, into the gentle heart one had heard beating under one's lips in the dusk of the past. And since the exact form of her death had not been recorded, Mira kept dying a great number of deaths in one's mind and undergoing a great number of resurrections, only to die again and again, led away by a trained nurse, inoculated with filth, tetanus bacilli, broken glass, gassed in a sham shower bath with prussic acid, burned alive in a pit on a gasoline-soaked pile of beechwood."

Nabokov uses the novel to take shots at a range of things including psychotherapy (waste of time), religion ("...the Greek Catholic Church, that mild communion whose demands on one's conscience are so small in comparison with the comforts it offers."), pretentiousness in art fads ("What did it matter to him that gentle chiaroscuro, offspring of veiled values and translucent undertones, had long since died behind the prison bars of abstract art, in the poorhouse of hideous primitivism?"), American food ("...he ate his vanilla ice cream , which contained no vanilla and was not made of cream."), and the pretentiousness of academe (a hilarious description of research grants for projects such as the eating habits of Cuban fishermen and palm climbers, and testing ten thousand elementary school students with a Fingerbowl test, the results of which would be "measured and plotted in all kinds of fascinating graphs.")

Nabokov is sometimes burst-out-laughing funny. For instance when he talks of a Russian language student, "whom somebody had told that by the time one had mastered the Russian alphabet one could practically read ‘Anna Karamzov' in the original." Or the mangling of aphorisms such as the old American saying, "He who lives in a glass house should not try to kill two birds with one stone." And at least once, Nabokov has fun with the reader. In Laughter in the Dark, there is blowsy lead actress in B-movies who glories in the stage name Dorianna Karenina. She says the name was suggested by a boy who committed suicide and when asked if she has ever read Tolstoy, she replies, "Doll's Toy? No. I'm afraid not. Why?". In Pnin, Nabokov refers to the daughter of president of the university spending her summer touring Europe with a very gracious old lady, "Dorianna Karen, famous movie star of the twenties." Coincidence....I think not.

And then there is Nabokov's wonderful descriptive powers:

"Presently all were asleep again. It was pity nobody saw the display in the empty street, where the auroral breeze wrinkled a large luminous puddle, making of the telephone wires reflected in it illegible lines of black zigzags."

The presentation of the novel is interesting. It is, for the most part, in the tone of the omniscient author but with insertions from a first-person narrator and then this narrator, who knows Pnin but has a strange relationship with him, takes over the last chapter of the book. Pnin, who thinks he is on the verge of tenure at the university and is even thinking of buying a house, is told by his friend and protector, the president, that he is to be let go because the president is taking a position in another university, and no one will continue to support Pnin. This seems an undignified and sad ending for an essentially good man who has done no one any harm, but the novel ends more hopefully in the description of Pnin driving away: "Then the little blue sedan boldly swung past the front truck and, free at last, spurted up the shining road, which one could make out narrowing to a thread of gold in the soft mist where hill after hill made beauty of distance, and where there was simply no saying what miracle might happen."

Finally, there is Nabokov's well-known vocabulary which send me scurrying to the dictionary for the following, among others:

carrel: small cubicle for reader in library
vernalization: cooling of seed before planting to accelerate flowering
skiagrapher: someone who shades in drawing
quoin: external angle of a building; stone or brick forming angle; internal corner of room
tumefy: cause to swell, inflate, be inflated
glabella: smooth part of the forehead above the eyebrows
rill: small stream, runnel, rivulet
purl: flow with swirling motion and babbling sound
Show Less
LibraryThing member jeff.maynes
Pnin, like much of Nabokov's work, is simply brilliant. The novel is a character sketch of Timofey Pnin, a Russian scholar teaching in America. Each chapter is an episode from his time teaching at the fictional Waindell College. Pnin is a rather hapless figure, and his exploits are commonly
Show More
comedic. Indeed, this is a really funny book, and could be enjoyed simply on that level. Nabokov is not just a poetic writer, he is unmatched in his literary wit. There are always more subtle jokes and turns of phrase to pull out of the text.

It is quickly obvious, however, that there is a lot more to the story and to the character of Pnin then the comic story might lead us to believe. His past is only on occasion discussed directly, but it is intrusive. Part of Pnin's humor is that he is a "fish out of water," so to speak (not to mention that he follows in the long tradition of the academic with his head in the clouds, as in Aristophanes' play). Yet, the memories of his past, frequently tragic, are a constant reminder that there is an environment in which he does fit more naturally. Not only does it flesh out his character with detail, it makes us take him seriously. Right from the offing, we are not merely laughing at Pnin, but aching for him at the same time. As a result, we are constantly invested in Pnin, we feel protective of him, even as we enjoy the book's charms. As a consequence, the novel works superbly as a character sketch, instead of just a comedy built on a cliche.

The stories are also wonderfully and subtly constructed. Take, for example, the third story. Pnin has been a lodger in a local home (with the family of another Waindell College Professor), and the early parts of the story focus on Pnin's frustration with having to return a library book that has been recalled before it is due (as a fellow academic, I could sympathize!). Yet, it is clear to the reader that other things are a foot with his lodging arrangements, which will obviously come to a head before the end of the story. Nabokov is able to make us aware of this whilst still making the story ostensibly one about Pnin's trip to the library. This comes off beautifully, as we are privy to Pnin's clueless behavior without having the narrator keep reminding us of it.

It's also a moving, at times heart-rending novel. The moment, at the end of a disastrous dinner party, when Pnin thinks he has broken a crystal bowl received as a gift is crushing. The moment that follows, when Pnin realizes it is intact, brings palpable relief. It's the simplest of moments, but told as it is, placed in a story as it is, and with a character we care about like Pnin, it sticks with you. I've found that simple moment on my mind, over a week since I read it.

The novel is also, as we would expect from Nabokov, brilliantly written. It is difficult for me to describe his prose without simply layering on supleratives, so instead I will just quote a pair of passages that reflect his eloquence and playfulness so well:

"Doffing his spectacles, he rubbed with the knuckles of the hand that held them his naked and tired eyes and, still in thought, fixed his mild gaze on the window above, where, gradually, through his dissolving meditation, there appeared the violet-blue air of dusk, silver-tooled by the reflection of the fluorescent lights of the ceiling, and, among the spidery black twigs, a mirrored row of bright book spines" (56).

"On the distant crest of the knoll, at the exact spot where Gramineev's easel had stood a few hours before, two dark figures in profile were silhouetted against the ember-red sky. They stood there closely, facing each other. One could not make out from the road whether it was the Poroshin girl and her beau, or Nina Bolotov and young Poroshin, or merely an emblematic couple placed with easy art on the last page of Pnin's fading day" (101).

The latter passage is particularly brilliant, with the way it moves seamlessly between the narrative and the meta-narrative, with the delightful pun about the "last page," as this is the final sentence of this particular story.

Pnin is fun and it is beautiful, and I recommend it without reservation to any reader.
Show Less
LibraryThing member labfs39
Having only read [Lolita], my perspective on Nabokov was narrow. I thought of him as a difficult author to read, with dark humor (if any). Then I read [Pnin], and my impression did a 180.

Everyone at the small college where Timofey Pnin teaches thinks he is a ridiculous figure with his humorous
Show More
language faux pas and bumbling ways. In the era of McCarthy, teaching Russian is as low on the academic spectrum as it is possible to go, and neither his colleagues or his few students respect him. Pnin stumbles through life with bemused good humor, and it is only when he is with his fellow Russian emigre compatriots that we see the well-spoken, confident intellectual that lies below the surface.

[Pnin] is a story of estrangement and belonging, assimilation and cultural difference, good-humored self-deprecation and simmering anger. It′s also a story within a story. There is an unnamed narrator telling Pnin′s story, and at the end of the novel, the motives of this narrator are called into question, and the reader is left wondering if this really is Pnin′s story after all.

Metafiction creates a tension between the protagonist and the writer. In most novels, there is a lulling sense that the protagonists true self is being revealed, but in metafiction this is disrupted. We are constantly being reminded that we are reading fiction, fiction created by a biased author, even when the author is claiming to be reciting the facts.

Some people—and I am one of them—hate happy ends. We fell cheated. Harm is the norm. Doom should not jam. The avalanche stopping in its tracks a few feet above the cowering village behaves not only unnaturally but unethically. Had I been reading about this mild old man, instead of writing about him, I would have preferred him to discover, upon his arrival in Cremona, that his lecture was not this Friday but the next. Actually, however, he not only arrived safely but was in time for dinner—a fruit cocktail, to begin with, mint jelly with the anonymous meat course, chocolate syrup with the vanilla ice cream.

By professing to tell the truth, rather than his own inclinations, and following that with an account of a mundane act too detailed not to be true, the reliability of the narrator is made more questionable, not less. The writer doth protest too much, methinks. But Nabokov handles this tension playfully and hides how much of himself is reflected. Certainly he, like both the narrator and Pnin, was a Russian emigre educated in Paris and a professor at small colleges in the United States. Is one aspect of Nabokov′s ego poking fun at another aspect?

On the surface, however, [Pnin] is a delightful romp with delicious descriptions and laugh-out-loud humor.

...Judith Clyde, an ageless blond in aqua rayon, with large, flat cheeks stained a beautiful candy pink and two bright eyes basking in blue lunacy behind a rimless pince-nez, presented the speaker…

Marriage hardly changed their manner of life except that she moved into Pnin's dingy apartment. He went on with his Slavic studies, she with her psychodramatics and her lyrical ovipositing, laying all over the place like an Easter rabbit, and in those green and mauve poems—about the child she wanted to bear, and the lovers she wanted to have, and St. Petersburg (courtesy of Anna Akhmatov)—every intonation, every image, every simile had been used before by other rhyming rabbits.

Blue lunacy and rhyming rabbits, I love it.
Show Less
LibraryThing member brenzi
Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov tells the story of professor Timofey Pnin who teaches Russian at a small New England college in the early 1950's. It is the story also of the immigrant experience at that time.

It is Nabokov's intense development of this one character that takes up the entire book. Other
Show More
characters are present but they really don't matter. It's Pnin that this book is about. You get to know him intimately, but find that you really don't know him at all. There is no shortage of characters that take advantage of him and his many shortcomings help to spell out his predicament.

As the story begins, he is on his way to give a speech to a ladies' group in a nearby town. So like the character we come to know, he gets on the wrong train and needs to constantly assure himself that he has his speech in his pocket, and his awkwardness among others becomes apparent.

The love of his life has dumped him for another, more suitable husband, a "genius" but Pnin will take her back, no questions asked and under any circumstances. He is preparing to leave France and emigrate to the United States when Liza shows up again. "He was halfway through the dreary hell that had been devised by European bureaucrats for holders of that miserable thing, the Nansen passport, when one damp April day in 1940 there was a vigorous ring at his door and Liza tramped in, puffing and carrying before her like a chest of drawers a seven month pregnancy."

He is totally oblivious of his strange characteristics and has no idea that his colleagues at the college ridicule him but all of this make him that much more sympathetic and you can't help but like him. Highly recommended.
Show Less
LibraryThing member AlexAustin
I recently read an essay on cancel culture. Its essential point was that exile from one's tribe was for most of human history considered worse than death. But in the view of those who would cancel at the drop of an ill-considered remark, losing one's job (exile from a career, exile from a way of
Show More
life) is a trivial thing. "Oh, he'll find other work." Well, it's not quite that easy, as Nabokov's Pnin brilliantly and hilariously illustrates.
Show Less
LibraryThing member jwhenderson
A comic novel very much in the Russian style with an opening on a train (ala Dostoevsky's The Idiot), this is a delight to read. While it is a short novel (novella length in the Everyman's Library edition) it is certainly not a trifle. Rather it is a postmodern gem, a novel of character with Pnin
Show More
the elusive and complex and oddly funny character at the center.
The book's eponymous protagonist, Timofey Pavlovich Pnin, is a Russian-born professor living in the United States. Pnin, a refugee from both Communist Russia and what he calls the "Hitler war", is an assistant professor of Russian at fictional Waindell College, possibly modeled on Wellesley College or Cornell University, at both of which Nabokov himself taught. At Waindell, Pnin has settled down to an uncertain, nontenured, but semi-respectable academic life, full of various tragicomic mishaps, misfortunes, and difficulties adjusting to American life and language.
As a representative of the "campus" novel it compares favorably with those of Randall Jarrell, David Lodge or Malcolm Bradbury. Its pastoral campus setting is very much a "small world" (title for one of Lodge's novels)removed from the hustle and bustle of urban life. It is the perfect setting for the precise observations that Nabokov is so good at rendering. The postmodern characteristics add an intellectual sheen to this campus story and at close reading raise questions about the nature of the narrator, Professor Pnin, and the status of the fiction itself. Whether memoir or fiction, autobiographical or imaginary flight of academic fancy, this novel charms the reader with the Nabokovian magic that is unique in twentieth-century literature.
Show Less
LibraryThing member jcbrunner
In seven short chapters, Nabokov animates a unique tragic hero, Timofey Pnin, an academic Mr. Bean. Displaced by two totalitarian regimes, this Russian émigré to the New World has to grapple with life (and America) at the bottom of the academic pecking order. Nabokov admirably preserves a shred
Show More
of our fallen hero's dignity in the early chapters, only to expose him to the cruel world later on.

To fully enjoy the text one has to have read both Nabokov's autobiography Speak, memory and Brian Boyd's two volumes on Nabokov. Pnin is clearly modeled on Nabokov's own experiences, although the author places subtle hints that he is not Pnin until he is practically shouting "I am not Pnin!" in the final chapter, the weakest of the seven. Abhorred by Freudian interpretations (which would trouble Nabokov even more in the case of Lolita) and overwhelmed by the public success of this unflattering alter ego, Nabokov inserts himself which results in a Kindsweglegung, a disavowal of his own creation, and an unsatisfying end.
Show Less
LibraryThing member katrynbaker
I would recommend this book to anyone who wanted to work their way slowly into Russian Literature. It is a light-hearted story about a school teacher who meets with some difficulties. It is humorous and a relatively easy read. I thoroughly enjoyed Pnin.
LibraryThing member ben_a
My teacher John O"Conner once described his response to Nabokov as "I just want to read a novel, I don't want to be tricked." Pnin retains much of the trickester's apparatus, but their significance is suppressed, and one can enjoy it more or less straight as story perfectly balanced between pathos
Show More
and bathos.
Show Less
LibraryThing member ferebend
This was one of those books that makes you unable to resume ordinary day-to-day life until you finish it. Fortunately it was quite short. And to think I was told that I wouldn't like it. Pshaw!

I am in awe of Nabokov's prosaic style. Just as I start to grow wary of the flowery prose and
Show More
overabundance of large words, he throws in a hilariously funny sentence or paragraph, recharging my will to keep on reading. What a master!
Show Less
LibraryThing member AnesaMiller
I loved this funny, touching, subtle, impressionistic short novel of the quintessential, yet unrepeatable emigre Russian college professor. I met many of Pnin's real-world epigones at Middlebury College summer language school, so I can attest that Nabokov's version both captures and transcends the
Show More

I could well relate to the hapless Pnin's [SPOILER, sort of:] professional demise at the end of the book. Nabokov makes it clear that, despite his often hilarious versions of English phrasing and pronunciation, Pnin knows his own language--as well as French--to perfection and is more a true scholar than any of the middlebrow Americans who surround him. Pnin's fine sensitivities are conveyed through trivial events that motivate weighty emotional recollections as, for example, a brief mention of his 1st love. All major events are presented obliquely, and so we discover in passing that Mira met an untimely end in a Nazi death camp.

The displacement of such past griefs in the new life of affluent, optimistic America is one of the book's fine achievements. Nothing is resolved as Pnin drives off into the sunset, having absorbed--we may believe, if we wish--his own measure of optimism.
Show Less
LibraryThing member gbill
Pnin is essentially a character sketch of a Russian immigrant professor, Timofey Pnin, told in flashes that reveal his life and personality. As with the main characters from the other Nabokov books I’ve read (Humbert Humbert in Lolita, and Albert Albinus in Laughter in the Dark), Pnin is
Show More
middle-aged and somewhat ridiculous; this seems to be a theme of Nabokov’s.

First, the positives: Nabokov’s writing is intelligent and beautiful, and if you highly value great prose form, you will likely enjoy this book. It was hard to pick a single example of this, but here’s one, the end chapter four: “Presently all were asleep again. It was a pity nobody saw the display in the empty street, where the auroral breeze wrinkled a large luminous puddle, making of the telephone wires reflected in it illegible lines of black zigzags.’” Have a look at the quotes below for further samples.

Nabokov is also funny, subtly so in various references, in the oftentimes pathetic antics of Pnin, and in plays on words, e.g. “’Bring also your spouse – or perhaps you are a Bachelor of Hearts?’ (Oh, punster Pnin!)”

Chapter five, and in particular part five of that chapter, is brilliant, with Pnin reminiscing in the park after a dinner party about a past love lost to him in the Russian Revolution, and then to the world in the Holocaust.

On a minor note, I also personally enjoyed how the Russian literature tradition was honored, with references to Turgenev, Pushkin, Tolstoy, Lermontov, and Gogol.

However, the book was uneven, at least in terms of holding my interest. Chapter three which follows Pnin through his research was a snooze. The mundane activities of the intelligentsia may be portrayed accurately, but they're sometimes boring. Nabokov’s writing style is languid, erudite, and at times compelling, but too often wants passion and action.

On the children of immigrants:
“…Pnin saw her for the first time at one of those literary soirees where young émigré poets, who had left Russia in their pale, unpampered pubescence, chanted nostalgic elegies dedicated to a country that could be little more to them than a sad stylized toy, a bauble found in the attic, a crystal globe which you shake to make a soft luminous snowstorm inside over a miniscule fir tree and a log cabin of papier mache.”

On death:
“I do not know if it has ever been noted before that one of the main characteristics of life is discreteness. Unless a film of flesh envelopes us, we die. Man exists only insofar as he is separated from his surroundings. The cranium is a space-traveler’s helmet. Stay inside or you perish. Death is divestment, death is communion.”

And this one, on the Holocaust:
“One had to forget – because one could not live with the thought that this graceful, fragile, tender young woman with those eyes, that smile, those gardens and snows in the background, had been brought in a cattle car to an extermination camp and killed by an injection of phenol into the heart, into the gentle heart one had heard beating under one’s lips in the dusk of the past. And since the exact form of her death had not been recorded, Mira kept dying a great number of deaths in one’s mind…”

On the lovers and wives of Russian authors:
“Turgenev … was made by the ugly, but adored by him, singer Pauline Viardot to play the idiot in charades and tableaux vivants, and Madam Pushkin said: ‘You annoy me with your verses, Pushkin’ – and in old age – to think only! – the wife of colossus, colossus Tolstoy liked much better than him a stooped moozishan with a red noz!”

On teenagers:
“The seemed to live at The Pines on a physical and mental plane entirely different from that of their parents: now and then passing from their own level to ours through a kind of interdimensional shimmer; responding curtly to a well-meaning Russian joke or anxious piece of advice, and then fading away again; keeping always aloof (so that one felt one had engendered a brood of elves)…”
Show Less
LibraryThing member icolford
Pnin, loosely based upon Nabokov's experiences at Cornell University and other American institutions of higher learning, features Timofey Pnin, a Russian-born humanities professor who has taught at Waindell College for nine years as an untenured member of the faculty. Nabokov presents his hero as a
Show More
man of letters, a true scholar, a head-in-the-clouds intellectual who is charmingly, often hilariously, at odds with practical aspects of modern life. At Waindell, he appears to have been shuttled from one department to another, teaching Russian to a dwindling audience of students in a political climate unsympathetic to all things Russian (1950s America). The search for home is somewhat of an obsession for Pnin. Displaced by war, he has come to America out of necessity and tried his best to fit in. His inability to adapt to American life is at the heart of Nabokov's novel. The distantly ironic narrator (who claims Pnin as a friend) pokes gentle fun at a thoroughly likeable man of late middle age who is earnest and awkward and often the butt of his colleagues' jokes, sad and somewhat pathetic in his bumbling efforts to belong. A variety of misadventures form the bulk of the story, which in the end sees Pnin cut loose by the college and homeless once again. It was the fourth novel that Nabokov wrote in English and his style had developed an enviable and wonderfully articulate fluidity. A great book by a great writer.
Show Less
LibraryThing member Clara53
Although many of us might possess the ability to have a varying degree of insight in drama that envelopes life around us, very few can even approach the skill with which V. Nabokov expresses it in words. He is one of a kind. The character of Professor Pnin in this book is amusing and infuriating,
Show More
endearing and irritating, exciting pity and reprimand, but most of all he is believable, even with all his inexplicable idiosyncrasies.
Show Less
LibraryThing member BooksForDinner
Enjoyed this, yet Nabakov's prose, however beautiful, can tend to be a bit acrobatic for me. A real work of art, though, as this is certainly not driven by plot. Just an endearing portrait of a kooky man.
Also, I catalogued this as Russian Literature. I know he wrote this in English while n America.
Show More
Show Less
LibraryThing member joshrothman
Teaching this book has been a real pleasure: beautiful writing--and, even better, Nabokov's calculated "bad" writing as well. The fifth chapter is one of the most interesting and weighty meditations on fiction, memory, and history I've read in the last few years.
LibraryThing member Karlus
Timofey Pnin is surely one of Nabokov's most engaging characters. He wins our hearts with his own heart of gold and his simple humanity, even as he is slightly befuddled by life's challenges, some of those of his own doing. Sometimes we chuckle along with him, in his moments of overflowing
Show More
happiness; other times we chuckle at him, in some of his antics. And, then too, our heart breaks when his heart is broken. We see him in poignant scenes prepared to re-ignite his love for the wife who left him and, another time, trying to be the super-dad for his only son, whom he only occasionally sees. And we see his happiness in hosting a party for his faculty friends, with an outcome that we'll not soon forget. This has been called one of Nabokov's greatest novels -- Lolita, Pale Fire and Ada, or Ardor, being the others.
But wait! At one point Pnin himself tells us not to believe a word the narrator is saying about him! But why not?! Well, fellow reader, because the further joys of this wonderful novel will only be had by re-reading it and coming to a second deeper level of understanding that Nabokov has artfully hidden among the enjoyable words we have already read. This novel provides enjoyment in full and is another example of Nabokov at his mature best.
Show Less
LibraryThing member RussellBittner
There’s a term for this kind of literature. And I must confess, I had to go back to the Introduction to find it: ‘the campus novel’ is what it’s called. David Lodge, who wrote that Introduction, allows that “there are some austere readers…who consider it a trivial and introverted
Show More
subgenre” (p. xiii) — and well it might be. But as most of the readers of Pnin will, I suspect, themselves have attended a comparable institution and spent a spring (or four )spread out on its shapely lawns or carousing in its comely quad, the notion of a ‘campus novel’ will not come as a rude shock or even as an unwelcome guest into an evening’s reminiscence upon those days of college lore.

That said, I must confess that this was not an easy work to read. There were many times when I wondered whether it was my lack of concentration, my inability to connect the dots, or simply my lack of intelligence. Don’t be dismayed if Pnin leaves you without a clue. Stylistically speaking, I assume that you’ll quite agree with me: Nabokov (properly pronounced naBOkuv, by the way) is sui generis. But where the integrity of this particular work is concerned, I’m at a loss.

And so, let’s instead take a look at Nabokov’s style.

The first paragraph of Chapter 3 gives us this delicious little characterization of the eponymous hero of our novel:

“During the eight years Pnin had taught at Waindell College he had changed his lodgings – for one reason or another, mainly sonic – about every semester. The accumulation of consecutive rooms in his memory now resembled those displays of grouped elbow chairs on show, and beds, and lamps, and inglenooks which, ignoring all space-time distinctions, commingle in the soft light of a furniture store beyond which it snows, and the dusk deepens, and nobody really loves anybody. The rooms of his Waindell period looked especially trim in comparison with one he had had in uptown New York, midway between Tsentral Park and Reeverside, on a block memorable for the wastepaper along the curb, the bright pat of dog dirt somebody had already slipped upon, and a tireless boy pitching a ball against the steps of the high brown porch; and even that room became positively dapper in Pnin’s mind (where a small ball still rebounded) when compared with the old, now dust-blurred lodgings of his long Central-European, Nansen-passport period” (p. 44).

Or — much later in the novel — say, at a point at which we might have a slight craving for an academic’s inside (and somewhat sardonic) observations on the animal instincts of other tillers (i.e., colleagues) in the fields of academe, we have the following:

"'He received a grant of ten thousand dollars,' said Joan to Betty, whose face dropped a curtsy as she made that special grimace consisting of a slow half-bow and tensing of chin and lower lip that automatically conveys, on the part of Bettys, a respectful, congratulatory, and slightly awed recognition of such grand things as dining with one's boss, being in Who's Who, or meeting a duchesse" (p. 115).

When I read the prose of Vladimir Nabokov, the word “gossamer” comes to mind. I don’t know why, but it does. The man had a deftness and dexterity with the language that few native speakers/writers possess — and this alone makes his work well worth reading.

Brooklyn, NY
Show Less
LibraryThing member nx74defiant
Charming, quirky, with a bittersweet note.
LibraryThing member aliceunderskies
I don't reread books often as a rule. But I reread this one almost once a year with startling regularity. Though it lacks the famous Nabokovian puzzle structure of Pale Fire or the intense psychological horrors & delights of Lolita, Pnin is my favourite of his works. This book is Nabokov at his
Show More
most delicious, witty, and glittering, proof of his mastery as a writer of perfect sentences--but unlike others of his books (which--caveat--I read regularly and tend to love anyway), the pageantry does not dwarf the pathos of its story. Pnin is simultaneously one of the saddest and funniest books I have ever read, an endearing character sketch of a fascinating and tragic man. And oh, those sentences! Glorious.
Show Less
LibraryThing member poetontheone
Timofey Pnin is a memorable, hilarious, and saddening character rendered through Nabokov's infinitely clever phrasing and enviable wordplay. This is a perceptibly light and comedic work that is underlined by Pnin's subdued but pitiful sorrows. Nabokov makes a definite commentary here about the
Show More
incurable alienation of Russian emigres in America, baiting us to shame ourselves in chuckling at the foibles of Pnin's otherness.
Show Less
LibraryThing member jhudsui
I finally found a boring Nabokov novel.
LibraryThing member Oskar_Matzerath
Be sincere, love something, be alive!
LibraryThing member DuneSherban
'Pnin' filled the creative gap awaiting the publication of 'Lolita', a work that overshadows this earlier, and in many ways equally poignant, novella. Nabokov organised Pnin for publication after it had been written as a series of sketches. While the book retains this sense of the fragmentary,
Show More
perhaps this is an appropriate literary device for a man, Timofey Pnin, who is engaged in a permanent struggle with his own memory and past.

Pnin concerns the exploits of Timofey Pnin, an emigre Russian scholar who has landed up in one of Nabokov's fictional, leafy American campuses. It is, in this regard, a campus novel; a satirical sketch of the life of an emigre involved in the campus politics of the 1940s. Nabokov treats Pnin with sympathy and humour, yet despite this study of a single man he fleetingly returns to emigre circles in Paris and Berlin, reminding the reader of his Russian language work 'Dar' (The Gift). His sketch of a summer gathering in north eastern America, among exiled scholars, painters, soldiers and thinkers, is a particularly powerful essay on exile; depicting an older generation who continue to take black tea and jam, the Russian way, and of their children who are Americanised, who would rather consume processed fare.

Gradually, Pnin recedes into the distance as the narrator, a man whom Pnin professes an intense dislike to, comes to the fore; this man represents a different voice, at once more confident and more historically literate -he can survey back into Pnin's St Petersburg past, which is something Pnin himself cannot manage (memories of Russia, for him, bring tears. We only see him watching a film in a busy lecture hall, and this is all).

Pnin offers a very unique contribution to the experience of exile among the Russian intelligentsia; unlike 'Dar' it is less esoteric, and does not engage with the Russian intellectual past as heavily. It has some of the melancholy of Ivan Bunin's short stories, and the generational and cultural fragmentation of Berberova's 'The Accompanist'. It is humourous, at times extremely witty, yet retains Nabokov's melancholy in exile. But it is not a pessimistic novel in whole. Here we have Nabokov working out a literary place for a character who, at first, seems only ridiculous; Nabokov's skill is in making us care for this ridiculous man.
Show Less
LibraryThing member albertgoldfain
Picked this up after hearing the first chapter on the New Yorker Fiction podcast. A nice character study. Pnin is just eccentric enough as an immigrant and a professor without being a caricature of either.


Original language



Page: 0.4858 seconds